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Losing Lyber Katz, Our Iron Man

September 6, 2014
by Lawrence Bush elainelyberHis name meant “beloved,” and hearing it always evoked a soft feeling in me, yet I thought of Lyber Katz as the iron man of the Jewish left. As long as he was around, I believed, Camp Kinderland would never sink into the mud, and Jewish Currents would never cease to publish. Lyber was a highly competent man, after all, an engineer who knew how to make machines work (thirty years my elder, he was proficient with computers before I even owned one). He understood how the world functioned, too; whenever there were statistics in an article submitted to our magazine, Lyber was the editorial board member who would do calculations in his head to judge if those stats were plausible. He was the only American I knew who had been educated during his childhood in the USSR. Long gone from being a true-believer Marxist, he seemed to view the arc of his political life with equanimity, without regret. There was wisdom in this, rooted in his understanding of both human foibles and human achievements. Lyber embodied the virtue of balance — he was not a tortured or anxious soul, but a man of (secular) faith. He would hate my quoting Torah about him, but hineni, “Here I am,” would be the Biblical phrase most fitting for Lyber Katz. Being present, always, was his great talent. When Lyber and his dear wife Elaine finally moved from their house of fifty years in the Bronx to Boston to be close to their kids, Lyber showed up at the very next meeting of the Jewish Currents editorial board back in Brooklyn. He was almost 90 years old, and he drove all the way to be with us. It wasn’t an act of macho, but of devotion. Just showing up, he knew, brings us halfway to victory. The son of a great Yiddish journalist, Moishe Katz, Lyber translated his father’s Yiddish memoir from the 1950s, The Generation That Lost Its Fear — about Jewish self-defense and revolutionary activity in 1905 Russia — when he himself was in his late eighties. It became the first book that Jewish Currents published under our imprint, Blue Thread, and it’s a marvelous memoir, full of detail and character and humor and action, about young, idealistic Jews of the early, early 20th century. (The Yiddish original is at the National Book Center, and so is Lyber, on video for over an hour, in one of their archived interviews.) We disagreed about many Jewish Currents-related issues. Lyber had little tolerance for abstraction in writing, in art, in poetry, and was alarmed or annoyed by my preferences, as an editor, for edgy writing, complex thought, uncertainty, and so on. He wanted to maintain the folk elements within Jewish Currents, and argued that our articles should simply cut to the chase. He was especially impatient with religion and spirituality, and wanted the magazine’s secularism to be uncorrupted by my frequent references to Talmud and other Jewish texts. Yet time and again, after the debates were done, he stood behind my efforts to innovate. Lyber really wanted to see the institutions he loved, and the values they embody, carried forward to future generations — and he understood that the future could not and should not look like the present or the past. Within his own family, a rarely found rich continuity of secular Jewish values and knowledge is the greatest testament to Lyber’s devotion. His son Mike and daughter-in-law Linda are both fluent in Yiddish and deeply involved in Jewish culture and social action, especially through the Boston Workmen’s Circle — and their daughter Pauline (Perele), is a Yiddishist and utterly comfortable in her progressive, secular Jewish skin. So I was right about Lyber: As long as he’s around, Camp Kinderland will never sink into the mud, and Jewish Currents will never cease to publish. The blessing is that he arranged to be around, in the only way human beings can, through his decades of loving and his decades of good works. I learned of his death last night through a donation to Jewish Currents in his honor. Thirty-six dollars, double-khay, the number of life. Lyber definitely lives on. Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.